India's #MeToo moment has reached Delhi's corridors of power, with the Congress party seeking an investigation against Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar over several allegations of sexual harassment levelled against the journalist-turned-MP by women he worked with in the past.
At least nine women have spoken up against Akbar and in stomach-churning details have given exhaustive accounts of their ordeal while working for Akbar when he was a journalist. Journalist and author Ghazala Wahab's article in The Wire was the latest in the string of allegations against the junior minister in Sushma Swaraj's ministry. Recounting the horrors from 1994 when she joined The Asian Age (when Akbar was the editor), Wahab in her article said that she spoke to Seema Mustafa, the then bureau chief for the paper, who heard her, but “was not surprised” and told Wahab that the call was “entirely” hers about what she wanted to do.
Mustafa on Wednesday evening released a statement backing Wahab's accounts on Facebook. "Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I have, over the years, been consistent in my condemnation - both on and off the record - of the culture at Asian Age, created by MJ Akbar."
Mustafa further added: "We were never silent, but our inability to be more vocal stemmed from the inability at the time — 20 years ago — of victims to publicly share the account of harassment." About Wahab's complaint, she said she does not recall anyone coming forth, but she believes that Wahab confided in her.
She ended her statement expressing relief that women "finally have the space, security and support to call out perpetrators of sexual violence, and demand a necessary shift in newsrooms and media organisations."
Read her full statement
There is finally a fight for a decisive change in the culture of newsrooms and media organisations, that have thus far accorded impunity to powerful men. While I have reservations with the MeToo movement, I have repeatedly said that this particular change is to be celebrated.
Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I have, over the years, been consistent in my condemnation - both on and off the record - of the culture at Asian Age, created by MJ Akbar.
We were never silent, but our inability to be more vocal stemmed from the inability at the time -- 20 years ago -- of victims to publicly share the account of harassment.
I do not recall anyone coming forth while I was at the Asian Age, and yet, I believe Ghazala Wahab when she says that she confided in me. Although I had only recently been confirmed in the Asian Age, I hope that when I said she should take a call, it meant that the decision to report the harassment she faced was hers to make, but she had my support if she chose to report it.
Unfortunately, at the time - victims did not have the safety or security to speak out, or perhaps the support to fight it out. We did not have sexual harassment committees or social media, and the only course of redressal was to file a complaint with the cops. This was perhaps the reason that journalists of my generation were forced to fight sexual harassment directly or remain silent.
I am glad women finally have the space, security and support to call out perpetrators of sexual violence, and demand a necessary shift in newsrooms and media organisations.
I stand by my article in TheCitizen.in that was written before Ghazala's story was published. In the article I have written on the culture at Asian Age in detail, and then later added that I support and stand by Ghazala and the others coming forward.
My reservations with MeToo should not be misconstrued into a support or defence for MJ Akbar and other perpetrators of violence.
Firstpost contacted Mustafa for comment. We will update the article when she responds.
Other than Wahab, many women came out with assault allegations against Akbar, primarily after journalist Priya Ramani re-plugged her article in Vogue from October 2017. Written after a string of women accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, Priya wrote about her experience with Akbar, but did not name him. In the Vogue article, Ramani said that Akbar had invited her to a hotel room in Mumbai for an interview and made uncomfortable advances towards her. She was 23 years old, while he was 43.
“I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator — maybe they’ll share.”
Scroll.in quoted a former journalist who worked under Akbar in the 1990s as saying that Akbar would “try his luck with anything that moved, but was not particularly vindictive”. “I think Akbar is slimy in many ways. There was a clear category of successful male behaviour that he fell within — this was the trouble. People didn’t even realise or think that there is anything wrong with this behaviour,” she added.
The website quoted another journalist who worked with Akbar as saying that he would “try and manipulate young, impressionable women”. “There were always more young women than men in office, and it used to be called Akbar’s harem. This was the reputation he came with,” the report quoted her as saying.
News18 reported that Akbar had made “sexually-loaded statements and gestures” in his capacity as editor-in-chief of a top national newspaper. According to the report, the Ministry of External Affairs is “in the know” of these allegations against Akbar, and that journalists who cover the ministry have asked for a response on the claims of Akbar’s “unsolicited advances towards women and his subordinates”.
However, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has not commented on the allegations yet. Swaraj on Tuesday evaded questions whether the government will take any action against Akbar.
Now a Rajya Sabha MP and the Minister of State for External Affairs, Akbar was the founding editor of The Telegraph, had launched The Asian Age and worked at a number of other media organisations, including The Sunday Guardian.
Updated Date: Oct 11, 2018 10:46:46 IST